Monsanto and its PR men are trying desperately to delink the epidemic of farmers suicides in India from its growing control over the cotton seed supply. For us it is the control over seed, the first link in the food chain, the source of life which is our biggest concern. When a corporation controls seed, it controls life. Including the life of our farmers.
The trends of Monsanto's concentrated control on the seed sector in India or across the world is the central issue. This is what connects the farmer suicides in India, to Monsanto v Percy Schmeiser in Canada, or Monsanto v Bowman in the US, to farmers in Brazil suing Monsanto for $2.2 billion for unfair collection of royalty. Through patents on seeds, Monsanto has become the "Life Lord" on the planet, collecting rents from life's renewal and from farmers, the original breeders. Patents on seed are illegitimate because putting a toxic gene into a plant cell is not the "creation" or invention of the plant. They are seeds of deception - the deception of Monsanto being the creator of seeds and life, the deception that while it sues farmers and traps them in debt, it is working for farmers' welfare and "improving farmers lives" - the deception that GMOs feed the world. GMOs are failing to control pests and weeds, and have instead led to the emergence of super pests and super weeds [PDF].
In 1995 , Monsanto introduced its Bt technology in India through a joint venture with the Indian company Mahyco.
In 1997-98, Monsanto started open field trials of its propriety GMO Bt cotton illegally, and had announced it would be selling the seeds commercially the following year.
India has had rules for regulating GMOs since 1989 under the Environment Protection Act. Under these rules, it is mandatory to get approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee under the Ministry of Environment for GMO trials.
When we found out that Monsanto had not applied for approval, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology sued Monsanto in the Supreme Court of India. As a result, Monsanto could not start commercial sales of its Bt cotton seeds until 2002. But it had started to change Indian agriculture before that.
'Seeds of suicide'
The entry of Monsanto in the Indian seed sector was made possible with a 1988 Seed Policy imposed by the World Bank, requiring the government of India to deregulate the seed sector.
Five things changed with Monsanto's entry. First, Indian companies were locked into joint ventures and licensing arrangements, and concentration over the seed sector increased. In the case of cotton, Monsanto now controls 95 percent of the cotton seed market through its GMOs. Second, seed which had been the farmers' common resource became the "intellectual property" of Monsanto, for which it started collecting royalties thus raising the costs of seed. Third, open-pollinated cotton seeds were displaced by hybrids, including GMO hybrids. A renewable resource became a non-renewable patented commodity. Fourth, cotton which had earlier been grown as a mixture with food crops now had to be grown as a monoculture, with higher vulnerability to pests, disease, drought and crop failure. Finally, Monsanto started to subvert India's regulatory processes, and in fact started to use public resources to push its non-renewable hybrids and GMOs through so-called public private partnerships (PPP).
The creation of seed monopolies, the destruction of alternatives, the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties, and the increasing vulnerability of monocultures has created a context for debt, suicides, and agrarian distress.
I have always been critical of reductionism. I look at systems, and at contextual causation. It is this system that Monsanto has created of seed monopoly, crop monocultures and a context of debt, dependency and distress - which is driving the farmers' suicide epidemic in India. This systemic control has been intensified with Bt cotton. That is why most suicides are in the cotton belt. The highest acreage of Bt cotton is Maharashtra, and this is also where the highest farm suicides are. According to P Sainath, who has covered farmer suicides extensively: "The total number of farmers who have taken their own lives in Maharashtra since 1995 is closing in on 54,000. Of these, 33,752 have occurred in nine years since 2003, at an annual average of 3,750. The figure for 1995-2002 was 20,066 at an average of 2,508." Suicides have increased after Bt cotton was introduced. The price of seed jumped 8,000 percent; Monsanto's royalty extraction and the high costs of purchased seed and chemicals have created a debt trap.
According to data from the Indian government, nearly 75 percent rural debt is due to purchased inputs. Farmers' debt grows as Monsanto profits grow. It is in this systemic sense that Monsanto's seeds are those of suicide. An internal advisory by the agricultural ministry of India in January 2012 had this to say to the cotton growing states in India: "Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers."
Moreover, after the damning report of the parliamentary committee on Bt crops, the panel of technical experts appointed by the supreme court has recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all GM food and termination of all ongoing trials of transgenic crops.
And the ultimate seeds of suicide are Monsanto's patented Terminator Tecnology that create sterile seed. The Convention on Biological Diversity has banned its use, otherwise Monsanto would be collecting even higher profits from it.
"Monsanto is an agricultural company. We apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world produce more while conserving more."
"Produce more. Conserve more. Improving farmers' lives."
This is the announcement on Monsanto India's website. All the pictures are of smiling prosperous farmers from the state of Maharashtra. However, we see that the reality on the ground is completely different. Farmers are in debt and in deep distress, and have become dependent on Monsanto's seed monopoly. Most of the farmers who have committed suicide in India did so due to being trapped in debt and are in the cotton belt - which has become a suicide belt now: The highest suicides are in Maharashtra. Monsanto's talk of "technology" tries to hide its real objectives of ownership, where genetic engineering is just a means to control seeds and the food system through patents and intellectual property rights.
A Monsanto representative admitted that they were "the patient, diagnostician, and physician all in one" in writing the patents on life sections in the TRIPS agreement of WTO. Stopping farmers from saving seeds and exercising their seed sovereignty was the objective. Monsanto has gone very far down the road of destroying biodiversity and seed sovereignty. It is now extending its patents to conventionally-bred seed - as in the case of broccoli and capsicum, or the low-gluten wheat it had pirated from India, which we challenged as a biopiracy case in the European Patent Office.
That is why we have started Fibres of Freedom in the heart of Monsanto's Bt cotton/suicide belt in Vidharba. We have created community seed banks with indigenous seeds and helped farmers go organic. No GMO seeds, no debt, no suicides. We save and share seeds of life and freedom - diverse, open-pollinated, GMO-free, patent-free seeds.
Dr Vandana Shiva is a physicist, eco-feminist, philosopher, activist, and author of more than 20 books and 500 papers. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and has campaigned for biodiversity, conservation and farmers' rights - winning the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993.
Follow her on Twitter: @drvandanashiva
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.